Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jesse James: Riding Hell-Bent for Leather into Legend

We Never Sleep

"When angry, count four; when very angry, swear."

Mark Twain

Allen Pinkerton during the Civil War
Allen Pinkerton during the Civil War

A rumor at the time still not discounted today stated that one of the pilfered passengers on the Iron Mountain express was a Scotsman, small of frame but mighty of brain, named Allen J. Pinkerton. If the rumor was true, the JamesYounger Gang could not have picked a worse train to rob. The legend may indeed have some basis in fact, for immediately after that hold-up, the National Pinkerton Detective Agency, the dread of all outlawry, singled out Jesse and Frank James as its top public enemies.

Time-Life's anthological The Wild West calls the Pinkerton agency, "the most famous crime-fighting organization of the 19th Century." Founded in 1850 by Pinkerton, a former Chicago police detective, its greatest national merit of the first ten years was foiling an assassination attempt on then-newly elected President Abraham Lincoln.

"The agency first made its name by protecting railroads," write the authors of The Wild West, "(but) an impressed Lincoln soon had the Scot heading a counter-espionage force during the Civil War. After the war...agents pursued some of the most desperate gunslingers of the day, including the James Gang and Butch Cassidy's Wild Bunch. And they most always got their man, no matter how long it took...So effective were the agents' methods that when the government formed the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1908, it used Pinkerton's agency as its model."

Missouri professionals' ongoing cries for relief from the James-Younger Gang were given some hope when Pinkerton detectives joined the search for the criminals. As if sensing the dangerous presence of Pinkerton, the James-Younger Gang operated outside of Missouri for some time after the Iron Mountain episode; they were suspected of knocking over a stagecoach line in Texas, and banks in Kansas and reputedly as far away as Mississippi. But, the hombres' detours from the state did not discourage the Pinkertons. The motto of the national detective agency was "We Never Sleep," and that boast seemed fact when they turned their gumshoe steps toward the James boys.

Results, however, crawled. Like the state-based authorities had done on many occasions, Pinkerton agents began loitering in the foothills around Kearney, Missouri, maintaining surveillance on the Samuels farmstead; they interviewed townsmen and those who were known to acquaint the members of America's most notorious gunslingers; they rapped on neighbors' doors asking if they had seen the James' recently. They got nowhere, discovering, as the local lawmen had, that the territory protected its own famous sons.

While investigators tried to unearth revelations of any kind that might lead to the present whereabouts of Jesse James, they may have, ironically, ridden within a mile or two of the very man they hunted; they may have passed him on the road; they may have stopped him for directions; they may have tapped on his front door to ask him what he knew about Jesse James! If they had, they would have encountered a pleasant young couple named Thomas and Mary Howard, recently married, who couldn't tell them anything about the scoundrel they sought because they were new to the locale; they'd just moved there from St. Louis to try their hand at farming.

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